What Art Can Teach Us About Healing

The benefits of utilizing art as a form of healing or respite within medical facilities is well documented through anecdotal evidence from patients and practitioners, as well as peer-reviewed research studies (see: Lankston et al., 2010, Wilson et al., 2016 and Boyce et al., 2017). Art in healthcare settings incorporates the display of extant works of art and the creation of new artwork. Artistic installations in hospitals can provide patients with a needed diversion from the jarring aesthetics and experiences of institutional care; while art making sessions between visiting artists, medical staff and patients, builds relational trust. The latter is as essential in the treatment process as medicine and operational procedures. Some forms of pragmatic art-centered treatment include inpatient and outpatient art therapy and doctor prescribed visits to art museums as a way to help patients cope with stress or trauma (see: Radsken, 2017). For patients who cannot physically get to museums, arts organizations have curated exhibitions and commissioned contemporary artists to create works of art within hospital rooms and wards. For example, the nonprofit organization RxArt has a remarkable track record in transforming uninviting hospital aesthetics into all-encompassing artistic environments, as a way to uplift the experiences of hospitalized children.

Artistic immersion is a profound means of expression for patients coping with a medical diagnosis and prognosis. This is evident in the work of contemporary artist Stephen L. Starkman. Prior to his terminal cancer diagnosis, Starkman’s photographic work focused on foreign places and portrayals of other individuals. After his prognosis, Starkman’s work became more introspective and he utilized the visual language of art to poetically navigate and express the process of dying from cancer. I wrote in depth about Starkman’s final series in a post titled “Lifelong Learning and the Artful Portrayal of Mortality”.

Art is not only beneficial for patients, it also helps doctors go beyond simply seeing their patients as a work-related responsibility. In a prior post titled “Art Integrated Medical Awareness and Education,” I mention that art inspires good interpersonal communication and displays of empathy, which has a profound impact on the overarching treatment doctors can give their patients. This is because art is a discipline that prompts critical, corporeal and emotional responses.

The arts lay out paths for us to make connections between how we see and interpret our place in the world, and how we communicate these sentiments with others. Talking about what is on our minds and how we are feeling is the crux of good artistic discourse. A true art-centered conversation blurs the lines between abstract and concrete expression. During art educational critiques, students learn to express themselves conceptually, while also tangibly describing their work and the process behind it. The second part of a critique is just as important because it involves active listening. Peers to whom the student-artist is presenting their work must be attentive and inquisitive. A good all around critique includes the artist being comfortable and adept at explaining themselves and their peers giving them feedback in the form of acknowledgement and follow up questions, which shows that everyone is seeking to understand and help one another. When transposed into the medical process, this type of communication becomes an essential skill that can be used to ensure complete cooperation and understanding between doctors and their patients.

Artwork from the Pictures From Gaza Project, a collaboration between UNRWA Schools in Gaza and the Chelsea Community Hospital School in London. Original drawing on the left and ceramic plate transfer on the right. Images courtesy of CCHS Gaza.

Not everyone appreciates or interprets art in the same way, which is totally fine. Disagreements and different reactions to art can be productive when they lead to healthy discourse and an exchange of ideas. As previously stated, critiquing art as a group activity can provide significant insight and understanding into the intent and perspectives of others. A recent high profile incident involving conflicting opinions on works of art made by Palestinian children and adolescents, underscores the importance of discussing art in a manner that recognizes differences among our lived experience. The work in question is a set of twenty-one handmade, painted plates. Student artists from UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Work Agency) schools in Gaza created drawings on paper and students from the Chelsea Community Hospital School (CCHS) in London transposed the drawings onto ornate ceramic plates that they made in their ceramics class. These works of art were subsequently installed within the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London. Despite the artworks in question having been at the hospital since 2012 without prior conflict, a group called UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI) was successful in lobbying the hospital to remove the artworks (see: Velie, 2023). In the aftermath of the controversy, the hospital notes that their community school has a longstanding relationship with other schools such as those in Palestinian Territories, and that their “primary focus is to care for everyone who is unwell.” They add, “we are sorry that the removal of this artwork has offended some communities and that its contents offended other communities. We will be working with the relevant parties on the next steps for the artwork.”

Both the UNRWA and CCHS schools offer specialized curriculum due to their student body’s differentiated needs, backgrounds and life experiences. There are 278 UNRWA schools within the Gaza Strip, serving about 291,100 students from first through ninth grade. Frequent disruptions due to the Israel-Palestinian conflict have a major effect on everyone’s well-being, but the violence and antagonistic rhetoric between Israel and Palestine is especially impactful on how children develop. The UNRWA schools were established because children deserve a safe space to socialize and learn. The CCHS in London provides education and developmental support to youth who are hospital bound. Both schools follow a student-centered model, where vocational skills are tailored to students’ social and emotional and physical needs. Art is a core component of the curriculum within both UNRWA schools and the CCHS.

The artwork made in collaboration between UNRWA and CCHS students symbolically communicates themes that are the fabric of everyday life and culture within Palestine. Moreover, the scenes depicted do not contain anything that I would deem offensive or threatening. Altogether, these are images that express the children’s pride in their cultural heritage and give outsiders an intimate view into their lived experiences. The very first artwork I viewed was a jovial street scene in Gaza where a green haired clown is performing. Several other drawings (mostly rendered with colored pencil and graphite) portray women baking traditional dishes like saj bread. There are depictions of children playing, socializing and reading. Other drawings depict women picking olives from trees, weaving baskets and spinning thread. All these scenes are benign, and while they are drawn from reflections of life in Gaza, they are also common scenarios in neighboring Israel, as well as much of the global Palestinian diaspora.

The fact that UKLFI and their clients felt threatened and “victimized” (see: UKLFI, 2023) by elements in the artworks feels like a projection of their own insecurities and bias, rather than a valid and comprehensive response to the actual works of art. Like I mentioned earlier, interpreting art can lead to discrepancies between two or more individuals or groups who share different views. Being that these works of art are in a hospital and are allegedly causing Jewish patients distress and discomfort, is something that certainly should not be ignored. Everyone has the right to feel safe and secure while getting treatment, and this actually is one of the principles within the Equality Act 2010, which hospitals in the United Kingdom adhere to. Within the act, are noted anti-discriminatory protections on grounds of religion or belief, sexual orientation and age. It is a stretch, and the blowback comes across as hyperbolic, but the argument that the works of art are discriminating against certain religious beliefs and ethnic groups, can be made in reference to this law. It falls along the lines of a very vague interpretation of said legislation, but that is often the case with deciphering and adhering to such things.

I am Jewish, and while Judaism and Jewish identity is not monolithic, I feel that these images pose absolutely no threat to Jewish people or Israel’s right to exist. I certainly am not tormented while observing and analyzing them. In fact, I gleaned some insight about Palestinian culture from viewing the children’s drawings, especially culinary traditions. The drawings spurred my inquisitive nature to research the various breads and baking methods common throughout the Middle East. This led to further realizations that Jewish and Arab diasporas share many relevant cultural practices.

Overall, the children’s artworks are indicative of core tenets within the human condition. They portray the largely acknowledged unalienable rights that we all deserve to exist, live safely and feel empowered to declare our social, cultural and ethnic identities. Rather than being antagonistic like UKLFI alleges, the works of art are compassionate expressions of humans finding joy and resilience in the act of living. This is even more remarkable in light of the harsh and complicated conditions they face due to living in an occupied territory. Art in general teaches us important ways to assert self-expression, while also developing significant understandings of other people’s expressions.

Artistic habits of mind, which are the behaviors and mindsets that we learn from making, viewing and discussing art; are evident throughout the suite of drawings made by the children. In particular, they prompt viewers to identify formal patterns and contextual relationships among the details in each work of art. Upon the realization of motifs that are both familiar and new to one’s own perspective, we might be inspired to make cross-cultural, intrapersonal and experiential connections between the works of art and our own backgrounds, prior knowledge and identities. This self-reflection and assessment (another habit of mind) leads to two more artistic habits of mind: living with ambiguity and exhibiting empathy. Living with ambiguity means that we simply do not have clear cut solutions to all of life’s complexities, and that there are more than one interpretation to approaching most issues. Although this sounds frustrating and stifling, we actually develop patience and hone our observation skills by slowing down our pace and allowing ourselves to employ an additional habit of mind, which is to notice deeply (see: Duggan, 2013). Through artistic processes we frequently try out new ideas, behaviors or scenarios that are reflective of what we have already learned and what challenges remain. This helps us to address and pose new/additional goals, questions and methods that highlight what further types of learning and understanding needs to happen.

Although it appears the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital is re-assessing display of the children’s artwork, it is a shame that they caved in to the demands of UKLFI without first considering alternative approaches. This issue could serve as a teachable moment with the artworks serving as the foundation for Palestinian and Jewish voices to find commonalities between the scenes depicted in the drawings and their respective quotidian and cultural experiences. This type of discourse and critical observation would be even more symbolic within a hospital setting, as a sign and act of healing, care and compassion through a non-discriminatory lens.

You can view the entire collection of UNRWA student artwork here, and the ceramic plate versions here. All images were taken and are courtesy of cchsgaza.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Boyce, Melanie, Bungay, Hilary, Munn-Giddings, Carol and Wilson, Ceri. “The Impact of the Arts in Healthcare on Patients and Service Users: A Critical Review,” Health and Social Care, 26, July 2018. pps. 458-473. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/hsc.12502

Duggan, Bob. “Can Art Teach Patience?” Big Think, 30 October 2013. https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/can-art-teach-patience/

Lankston, Louise, Cusack, Pearce, Fremantle, Chris and Isles, Chris. “Visual Art in Hospitals: Case studies and Review of the Evidence.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine,103(12), December 2010. pps. 490-9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2996524/

Radsken, Jill. “Prescribing Art in Medicine,” Harvard Gazette, 30 January 2017. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/01/prescribing-art-in-medicine/

UKLFI. “Hospital Displays Divisive and Discriminatory Artwork,” 9 February 2023. https://www.uklfi.com/hospital-displays-divisive-and-discriminatory-childrens-artwork

Velie, Elaine. “London Hospital Removes Gaza Children’s Art to Placate Pro-Israel Group,” Hyperallergic, https://hyperallergic.com/804301/london-hospital-removes-gaza-childrens-art-to-placate-pro-israel-group/

Wilson, Ceri., Bungay, Hilary, Munn-Giddings, Carol, & Boyce, Melanie. “Healthcare Professionals’ Perceptions of the Value and Impact of the Arts in Healthcare Settings: A critical Review of the Literature.” International Journal of Nursing Studies, 56, 2016. pps. 90– 101. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0020748915003648?via%3Dihub

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